Roasting the Pig Fantastic

Biltmore Lechon Cup Turns Up the Heat
Jan 4, 2007 | By Alejandro Benes
Roasting the Pig Fantastic
'T'was the week before Christmas,
We all had a swig.
The pressure was on.
We were roasting the pig.

-- With apologies to author
Major Henry Livingston Jr.

Jorge Padrón, captain of the Padrón family's "Los Bar B Qubanos," checked the temperature of his fire inside the smoker constructed by his nephew Marcos. "Los Soplatubos" ("The Tube Blowers," as in trumpet players), fronted by famed Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, cranked up their propane-fueled cooker. Minutes later, the members of the Fanjul sugar family team rolled in with what could best be described as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle version of pig smokers, a huge, olive greeen, oil-barrel-shaped contraption on wheels. Smoker envy became apparent. The remaining teams used cajas chinas (Chinese boxes), a more traditional contraption for Cuban-style porcine preparation.

Supposedly sophisticated equipment, though, doesn't make up for questionable technique. The general school of thought in successful barbecuing of a whole pig is "low and slow." That is to say, a fire at relatively low heat (225° Fahrenheit to a maximum of 250°) that cooks the meat over many hours. So it was with amazement that contestants watched as the Fanjul team poured whole bottles of lighter fluid onto their fire. A couple of hours later, that team's hog was so charred that one wag suggested, "We should call the burn unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital and tell them to get ready."

Most of the other efforts went smoothly, though there were some expressions of concern that some teams had begun so late in the day that they would be serving "pork sushi."

The story of the 2006 competition, a battle among mainly manly men who believe they can cook the best lechon (Spanish for whole roast pig, a staple of Cuban cuisine, especially during holidays), really begins two Augusts ago. During 2005's Biltmore Lechon Cup in Coral Gables, Florida, teams had to confront not only each other's skills and resources, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which had blown through two days before the contest and left the historic hotel without power.

"Electricity really helps make for a better party," Biltmore owner Gene Prescott observed about the 2006 event. No argument there.

On Sunday, nine teams set up camp in the hotel's backyard and began lighting their charcoal, wood or propane cooking machines. The atmosphere was at once intense and collegial. Orlando Padrón, patriarch of the cigar clan, walked over to Sandoval and offered him a 1926 Series No. 35.

"This little cigar is plenty good," the trumpeter said after a few puffs.

Rain threatened and teams put up tents. Two domino tables were set up. Players smoked cigars. A lot of them. Scotch, rum, beer, other libations and food came out. A TV showed the Dolphins losing to the Bills. The party was on.

This year's Lechon Cup drew much more coverage from media not distracted by hurricanes. Local TV and newspapers popped in and out and even Al Jazeera International, in town on rumors that Fidel Castro had once again died, took advantage of the presence of prominent members of the Cuban community to shoot part of a report on "Cuba after Fidel." As Al Jazeera's cameraman took pictures of the pigs on the fire, a discussion began about how a Muslim audience might react. But that quickly faded as trash talk took over.

"Richard!" one member of the Padrón team shouted to neighbor Richard Perez, an attorney and head of "Los Machuchitos." "Do you have enough Botox to get the wrinkles out of that pig?"

A prize-winning pig must have a crispy top according to one judge.
By 6 p.m., the deadline for turning in the pigs, Perez had decorated his entry with a Santa hat and Christmas tree ornaments. Botox might have worked better. Team number two lighted small holiday candles in an effort to beat the coming darkness. Team number five, for reasons still unexplained, was using a blowtorch on the skin of their pig, perhaps in an effort to lend some toasty color. Team Padrón, like other groups, used a more traditional, tropical decorating scheme.

The pigs were collected and put on carts. Gene Prescott applauded as they were taken to the kitchen to be readied for parading in front of the more than 300 guests. Then the judging began.

The pigs were judged using six criteria and a scale of 1 to 10 points, 10 being the highest score possible in each category. The judges considered taste, presentation, texture, tenderness and moistness, and the taste and crispiness of the skin. The last category presents the toughest challenge to competitors and can make the biggest difference.

Miami native and celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein, who is of Cuban descent, was very serious as she judged the pigs in the Biltmore kitchen. She later explained what she looked for as she assessed the quality of a lechon.

"Juiciness, lots of flavor, a little fatty, but not too much. I look for balance," Bernstein said. "A crispy top. Very few of them have a crispy top. El chicharron (crackling), you know?"

Other judges included Grammy award-winning Cuban-American musician Willy Chirino (who lit up a Padrón Aniversario after dinner), Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek (who lit up a Padrón Aniversario after dinner), and Dominican chef Willy Hernandez, of Miami restaurant Caramelo, who used a fork to bang on the skin of the pigs to check for texture. The judging done, the hotel's chefs commenced to chopping up the pork using cleavers.

Invitees lined up at four buffet tables as Jessica Chirino, Willy's daughter, and her band belted out Latin tunes. In addition to all the pork -- divided into separate chafing dishes according to team numbers -- side dishes included avocado, tomato and onion salad, black beans and rice, sweet plantains and yuca con mojo (cassava with garlic sauce). The dessert table offered rice pudding, guava shells, grapefruit in honey and a stack of Philadelphia cream cheese bricks to accompany the last two desserts so that their sweetness might be tempered. So much sugar. So my people.

Arturo Sandoval (left), Chef Willy Hernandez (Caramelo Restaurant) and David Gonzalez (part of Sandoval's team, The Soplatubos).
An hour into dinner, Ana Navarro, who organized the whole event for the hotel, called each team to the dance floor just prior to announcing the winners. In third place, "Los Bar B Qubanos," the Padrón team, which placed second last year. In second, "Cachita"; and the winner, Sandoval's "Soplatubos." Each team received a trophy with a hog on top. Cheers went up. Many photos were taken. No one dwelled on the outcome, but congratulated one another. Many went off to see if the Padróns had brought cigars and would share. They had.

As many lit up, no doubt violating many Florida laws, Willy Chirino grabbed a bass guitar and took the stage with his daughter. A familiar and flawless bass line rang out. You couldn't tell Paul McCartney wasn't playing until you heard Chirino sing the refrain with a slight Cuban accent.

"She was a day-ay-ay treeper. One way teecket, yeah. It took me soooo long to find out. I found out. Day treeper, yeah."

In the interest of full disclosure, as in 2005, I was again a member of the Padrón cigar team. I'm proud to have been associated with "Los Bar B Qubanos" and am happy to point out that ours is the only team that has finished "in the money" two years running. Next year, I'm counting on winning. I plan to cheat.

Alejandro Benes is a partner in a group of restaurants in Southern California.